Corals:   Protection for Teething Babies

A child’s teething time has been a source of great angst for parents since prehistoric times, if not before, and remains so for most parents to this day. But for Regency parents, their child’s teething time was a period not only of great anxiety but of intense fear. As had been the case for many centuries, in the early nineteenth century, teething was believed to be responsible for at least ten percent of infant deaths. For parents who could afford it, they believed the best protection for their teething child was a "coral."

The legend and lore of the power of coral …

Greek mythology provides a most romantic and dramatic explanation for the origin of coral. Perseus took the head of Medusa and used it to turn Cetus, the sea monster who intended to devour Andromeda, to stone. He then put the Gorgon’s head on the bank of a river while he washed his hands. Some of the blood still dripping from her head flowed into the water and turned the nearby seaweed into red coral. Red coral is the most precious of all the species of coral. Though it is called "red" coral, it actually comes in wide array of colors from pale pink to a deeply saturated red. It was fairly hard and smooth, and could be polished to a high, glossy shine while retaining its color. Coral was used for millenia to craft jewelry and other ornaments.

Though the ancient Egyptians were unaware of the Greek’s mythological story of the origins of coral, surviving Sumerian tablets more than three thousand years old record their use of coral for teething rings. The Egyptians believed the coral would ease their babies’ pain during teething and they had these coral rings inscribed with the head of Bes, a god which was known to protect children. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans believed that coral would ward off the falling sickness and a number of other infantile ailments and diseases. Plato wrote, "Coral is good to be hanged about … " The Greeks hung coral ornaments on their babies’ cradles and in their nurseries while the Romans hung pieces of polished red coral around the necks of their babies to keep away evil influences. This belief in the supernatural power of coral survived into the Middle Ages in Europe, where coral gum sticks were given to teething babies of the upper classes. Parents believed the coral would ward off evil and prevent their babies’ gums from bleeding.

In Renaissance Italy, a good-luck charm made of coral in the shape of a branch of red coral was worn by many adults. Such protective charms were even more often placed around the necks of many babies to ward off any evil influences. Curiously, it was also believed that coral would protect children from lightening strikes. By the sixteenth century, the use of coral to protect babies had spread across Europe and a necklace of coral beads had become a common christening gift to babies of the more affluent classes. Most children wore these coral beads for years. When the necklace became too small to be worn around the neck, the bead string was usually doubled and worn as a bracelet until the child became an adult. Some children actually chewed on their coral charms or coral beads while they were teething.

Most babies begin teething between the ages of five to six months of age, and the process can continue for a year or more. A teething baby may fuss, loose their appetite or be unable to sleep. Their cheeks may become red, and they may occasionally run a slight temperature due to the teeth trying to break through their gums. Typically, teething children do not run high temperatures, vomit or display other serious symptoms of ill health. However, they do often show intermittent signs of pain, which can be very stressful to concerned and loving parents. From at least the seventeenth century, this drove many parents to seek a wide range of treatments which might provide some relief to their little ones while they were teething.

Unfortunately, some of those teething remedies did more harm than good. The more benign of these cures included giving the child a dry bread crust, a lump of sugar wrapped in a cloth, sticks of licorice dipped in honey or wax candles to chew on. A folded cloth saturated with brandy or other strong spirits might be given to the teething child, which did temporarily relieve the pain and had the side effect of sending the baby to sleep. Another "cure" required that the gums of the baby be smeared with the brains of a hare at least four times each day. Sometimes teething babies were bled, usually by placing leeches on their gums. The most severe treatment was the lancing of the gums, but this was seldom a sterile process and there were a number of teething infants who died of infection brought on by the lancing of their gums. Because so many infants died during the first two years of life, well into the nineteenth century, those deaths were often ascribed to teething, despite the fact it was seldom the primary cause. As late as 1860, one American doctor wrote: "I can assure you that the readiness to attribute all the diseases of infantile life to teething has destroyed more human beings than many of the wars described in history." Is it any wonder that teething was a terrifying time for many Regency parents?

Though the Regency was on the cusp of the modern era, superstition and ancient beliefs still held sway over many people, unconsciously, if not consciously. Coral had been used for centuries to protect teething infants from harm, and it continued to be used for that purpose during the Regency, just as it had during most of the eighteenth century. Beginning in the early eighteenth century, infants of many wealthy families received a very special christening gift. This gift was a device which was intended to provide them with the greatest possible protection against any harm or illness. Precious metals, in particular, silver and gold, were considered to have mystical properties. Silver was believed not only to have purifying effects but also to be anathema to all things of evil supernatural origin. Bells made of silver were thought to send out pure sound which repulsed evil and invited good spirits to draw near. Thus, beginning in the early eighteenth century, a special teether/rattle was made as a christening gift for the infants of wealthy families. An ornate silver whistle from which a set of small bells was suspended was fitted at the lower end with a coral gum stick. Bright red coral was used most often, as that color was considered to be symbolic of youth, health and vibrancy. Many of these lavish rattles were fitted with a loop through which a ribbon could be threaded in order to suspend the rattle from the baby’s neck or tie it at their waist.

The majority of these rattles were made of silver, though there were a few made of gold. These elegant baby rattles were very expensive, since they were made of both precious metals and precious red coral. Therefore, typically only affluent families could afford them for their children, and in many families they became heirlooms which were handed down through the generations. The silver and coral rattles made during the mid- to late-eighteenth tended to be particularly ornate. By the turn of the nineteenth century, smaller, less ornate coral teethers were also made. These coral teethers had less embellishment and were therefore less costly and more affordable for upper middle class families. However, they remained well beyond the pocketbooks of the middling and lower classes. Even while less elaborate coral teethers were made during and after the Regency, so too were the more ornate rattles made for those who could afford them. Because red coral gum sticks were the common component of these rattles and teethers, they came to be called "corals."

Corals actually turned out to be a good solution for teething babies. When a child is teething, being able to bite down on something hard actually helps to relieve the pain, as well as slowly forcing the milk teeth through the gums to complete the process. Coral is the product of a living organism, and thus it is a comparatively soft gemstone. Though these coral gum sticks were quite firm, they were very smooth and more yielding than the wood, animal bones or raw carrots and other vegetables used by the lower classes. Coral did not chip or splinter and was also cool to the touch, which was soothing on a teething baby’s hot gums. The sound of the bells, and even the whistle, could also help to distract baby from the discomfort of teething, even if only temporarily. Corals also provided some comfort and reassurance to the parents of those infants that the coral, the silver and the sound of the bells would provide a certain amount of mystical protection for their teething babe.

However, even in the eighteenth century, these silver and coral rattles and teethers were not just practical devices to aid a teething child or to provide them with mystical insurance against evil, they were also status symbols. Silver, gold and gemstone grade red coral were costly materials, as was the labor of the goldsmiths and jewelers who crafted these high status christening gifts for the children of wealthy families. Quite a number of these corals made for upper-class babies were engraved with the family crest or coat of arms. Though the baby who received such a gift was oblivious to the care and craftsmanship which would have been lavished on it, it served as a signal of the wealth, good fortune and high status of the doting parents. Some scholars have suggested that these ornate silver corals were only given to the child during special social occassions and that they were given a plain coral gum stick for chewing on when they were teething in private. That may explain why many of these corals survived to be handed down to subsequent generations of children in the family. An infant which brandished a family heirloom coral at their christening demonstrated not only wealth but the added status of tradition.

As the Regency drew to a close, there were some "corals" which were made of bone, ivory or mother-of-pearl. These white gum sticks were symbolic of innocence and purity, but they did not offer the same mystical protection as did red coral. The less superstitious Victorians came to prefer the white symbols of purity for their children to the red coral which was supposed to ward off evil, and lightening strikes. Though a few teething rings were made during the Regency, the preference of most parents during that decade was a gum stick. The majority of these gum sticks were made of deep red coral though there are a few surviving corals in which the gum stick was a pale pink coral, but still coral, the living gem of protection for teething children.

Dear Regency Authors, might a baby’s "coral" have a place in one of your future novels? Will it be a gift to the newborn heir from a wealthy and overbearing godparent? Or will there be quite the kerfuffle while preparing for the christening ceremony because no one can find the heirloom coral which the baby simply must have to demonstrate the family’s status to the guests? Then again, perhaps the heroine, an impoverished young woman, has an ornate coral, engraved with a family crest, which had been entrusted to her by her dying mother many years before. It has a whistle, but for as along as she can remember, the whistle has never worked. She assumes it is simply old or broken and thinks nothing of it. But one day, it falls into the hands of the hero, who recognizes the family crest, and looking closely into the whistle, discovers a tightly folded note is blocking the air passage. What might that note reveal, and how might that change the young lady’s destiny?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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17 Responses to Corals:   Protection for Teething Babies

  1. I believe the belief re lightning is to do with the doctrine of signatures because the branches of the coral resemble the branches of forked lightning [well they’re both fractal in nature so no big surprise there to the modern mind] and there’s probably also something about wet under the sea opposing dry, fiery up in the sky or some such, like using herbs to balance the humours. I just had a minor plot bunny moment for my Regency cyberpunk -if I ever get anywhere with it – using coral as an integral part of the marvellous mechanical steam dragons to ward off lightning strikes. Which will appear to work because they are already a Faraday cage but I suspect my Dragonniers will be as superstitious as sailors…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      WOW!!! Thanks for the background on coral and lightning. I tried to find the origins of that particular belief online, with no luck. It all now makes perfect sense.

      Interesting plot bunny. And your Faraday cage will be so much more elegant and stylish with the addition of coral! Good luck with your story.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • I don’t say I’m right… just basing an educated guess on the late medieval mind set, which I know fairly well…
        I stalled on that wretched story, maybe coral will kick start it. Maybe I can have a side plot where a dragonnier has lost his coral and a young widow provides her baby’s comforter and there’s love at first bite, er, sight. I have a main love/hat/love story but the odd side plot never did any harm.

  2. elfahearn says:

    Per usual, Kathryn, a fascinating bit of Regency history. Thank you so much for sharing your stunning scholarship!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Now you are putting me to the blush! I happened upon so many fascinating objects in my years as a curator, and even today, when I get any chance to do some antiquing, I just hate the idea they may become lost to history. So, I am trying to get a record of them online so that authors will have the information, in case any of these objects might help to add additional realism to stories set during the Regency.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. This reminds me of a visit to a historic house where one of the less ornate versions of the coral rattle was on display. A guide spotted me and dragged me to the show case, asking if I had any idea what the silvery thing with the red part on top was. I hadn’t – and guessed: “lipstick?” This answer amused him very much.

    It’s interesting that teething was believed to be responsible for at least ten percent of infant deaths – and those “cures” they had! How about an “enlightened” heroine with a keen interest in modern medicine marrying into a stiff, rich family. Having given birth to her first child, she has to fight off the old-fashioned, dangerous remedies for her teething baby. Imagine the acid-tongued dialogues between her and the overbearing mother in law (“You are deliberately risking the life of our heir. I wonder if the baby really is the child of my son?!”) until they settle for the coral rattle.

    I like your plot bunny with the secret something hidden in the coral rattle. Maybe there is something in it that will endanger the family: A letter telling about her father’s treacherous actions against king or country. In this case – and to add some drama – the person finding the secret hiding place can’t be the hero, but has to be the villain. But the hero is not too far away …

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am not surprised you thought the coral was a lipstick, many of them are about the same length, and red coral does look rather like lipstick.

      I was rather hoping the note inside the heroine’s coral rattle was proof that she was the long-lost member of a noble family, rather than an impecunious governess or seamstress, perhaps with a substantial inheritance held in trust for her. But I can see where your plot bunny could certainly add drama to a story.

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. Sia says:

    Hmm … converting the necklace to a bracelet does sort of make a kind of physical sense. When children are old enough to lose their milk teeth, they also have a set of permanent teeth that come in (typically, about six) where there were no baby teeth before.

    For a child, that would hurt in the way that other baby teeth wouldn’t.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Quite true, coral would not have been needed when the permanent teeth came in, as the child would be older and stronger, thus better able to resist the perceived dangers of teething. But since coral was still believed to protect against lighting strikes, coral on the wrist would serve the purpose nicely.

      =^..^=

      • Sia says:

        May not have been needed in the sense of ‘evil spirits’ needed. The parents no doubt thought they were protecting their children against lightening strikes. Probably though, there was more than the the occasional five-to-six-year-old who chewed the bracelet when they thought no-one was looking though,

        I was an ‘appropriate chewer’ when I was at the age where I lost my baby teeth. As in lots of requests for apples, raw carrots and ….yeah, you get the general idea.

        • I ate my way through pencils and biros, as i also did at 13 when the next lot came in. I, however, was unlucky to have many of my adult teeth come through bad, because of having had Rheumatic Fever as they were forming in my jaw, which would have been a more common occurrence in the Regency than in the modern era. Paradoxically I was told later that a small child has a better chance of surviving than an older one, since they will go by their instincts and curl up to rest where an older child might try to continue doing things that interest them, thereby placing the strain on the heart that damages it. A little child has a better chance of avoiding this. I used this as a plot bunny when developing Anne de Bourgh in ‘Vanities and Vexations’, a P&P spinoff and sequel, by assuming that she was ‘cross and ill’ in Lizzy’s words in having had Rheumatic Fever at about the age of new tooth eruption, leaving her face pinched and without a smile [it was ill bred to show the teeth in a smile, but they DO shape the mouth] and she WAS affected by a heart murmur. Living up to Lady Catherine is enough to give anyone a heart murmur, though…
          I’ve noticed, working with small children, that a lot of little girls that age tend to either suck their thumbs or chew on the ends of their plaits, and I am wondering if this is an instinctive way to create alleviation of the discomfort engendered by teething.

  5. Thank you for this interesting overview. I created a link to your article on the website of the Keijser collection of rattles and teethers which indeed includes many interesting examples of coral teethers and lavishly decorated coral-and-bells. If you are interested you can expolre this collection at http://www.collectiekeijser.nl/en/collectie

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for the link to such a wonderful selection of “corals,” along with a timeline! An extraordinary visual resource of which I was quite unaware. I am sure many visitors here will want to click over and take look.

      Regards,

      Kathryn

  6. Pingback: Dangerous, even deadly: Teething in Jane Austen's World - Random Bits of Fascination

  7. vegedblog says:

    do you have any citations you can provide for this? I’m doing research on coral teethers.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I wrote this article more than two years ago, and my notes and bibliography are currently in storage. However, there are many sources for information on this subject. You might like to start with a search on the key phrase coral for teething on Google Books. Though the full texts of most of those books are not available online, you will find the citations for them, so you can then get copies through your local library.

      Good Luck with your research!

      Regards,

      Kat

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